Values, conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In 1992, Shalom Schwartz published a seminal paper entitled “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries”. The paper has been cited something like 12,000 times, and the findings have been refined since then. In short, it summarises different value orientations held by individuals. On reading this paper, I began to wonder what the implications of this are for conservation and sustainability.



I’ll start with a disclaimer and a summary of what Schwartz found. First the disclaimer: perhaps everything I write below has long been known by people working on conservation and sustainability, and I’m very late in catching up. If so, I’m happy to be further educated, e.g. by people explaining to me and other readers how this has been applied to conservation and sustainability in the comments below. But if I’m somewhat “typical”, then this is not at all widely known, understood, or reflected upon within the conservation and sustainability fields. And if that is the case, there might be some pretty important implications that require our attention.

Second – a summary of what Schwartz found. In the original paper from 1992, Schwartz developed theory, and then tested it on a large sample of individuals from a number of different countries. His theory was largely confirmed, and went something like this. Different people hold different values. Some values are compatible, whereas others are oppositional. Compatible values are, for example, if I value the attainment of wealth, and if I value the achievement of social recognition. Oppositional values might be valuing tradition versus seeking excitement in life.

These kinds of constructs – compatible and oppositional values – can be depicted in a kind of circular wheel, as shown in the Figure above. This wheel was generated by a multivariate analysis of many people responding to the same questions about their values, so this is an empirically grounded theory . Adjacent sectors in this wheel are compatible values, whereas opposite sectors in the wheel are oppositional.

So far so good – how is this relevant to conservation and sustainability? I think it is in a number of ways.

A lot of the values associated with conservation and sustainability cluster in the sector on “universalism” (top right). For example, here, we find “protecting the environment”, “social justice”, and even “unity with nature”. Opposite of that, we find the sector “power”, with values such as “wealth” and “social recognition”.

We can now ask ourselves where in this wheel individuals belonging to different cultures might sit. This is relevant for conservation and sustainability, because we might pitch our messages differently, according to people’s values (e.g. see this comprehensive report, or here for a simpler summary; and here for additional materials).

But I think perhaps there is something even more interesting going on. Here, I present three testable hypotheses, which would have implications for conservation and sustainability action.

Hypothesis 1: A substantial proportion of the population (probably differing between jurisdictions) actually holds values that are compatible with universalist values (i.e. sustainability and biodiversity conservation).

Hypothesis 2: Despite this, we are seeing patterns of behaviour at an aggregate (societal) level that emphasise values that are largely oppositional to sustainability, such as achievement and power. That is, we have created institutions that foster values that are not inherently shared by people. We thus have a mismatch between the value sets fostered by institutions and the value sets held by people.

Hypothesis 3: If this is correct, the “solution” to sustainability problems becomes one of “simply” re-aligining institutions to what people actually want. This may be a major task, but is a relatively smaller problem than if people themselves actually did not hold values compatible with sustainability. In other words, we may not need to “re-educate people”, but rather draw out what people actually want, and ensure that institutions are reformed in ways that reflect the want of “the people”.

Hopelessly optimistic? Actually, people are selfish and individualistic, and care about power and wealth and nothing else? Perhaps – convince me if you can. But at this stage I think it’s more likely that we are dealing with a mis-match between values fostered through institutions and values held by individuals. I speculate, in turn, that such a mis-match has probably arisen from power dynamics that go hand in hand with how we have organized societies (including economic principles); i.e. the whole thing is an institutional and power problem, not fundamentally one of values.

If I’m right, all of this points to us needing more conversations at a societal level about what it is that we truly value — and then working towards how to (re-)organise society accordingly. And then who knows, perhaps sustainability is within closer reach than we may have thought …


10 thoughts on “Values, conservation and sustainability

  1. Thanks for this excellent blog Joern. I think people have recognised the importance of these values in sustainability, but mostly around individual behaviour change (Paul Stern and Thomas Dietz’s work for example). But I haven’t come across any substantial research exploring the disconnect between individual values and institutional values, and I think your hypothesis #2 is spot on. Your suggestion that few people overall are driven by egoistic values reminds me of Riyan van den Born’s work on ‘visions of nature’ in the Netherlands ( She found that “all respondents reject the idea of mastery over nature for moral reasons”. So yes, perhaps institutional change is where we need to focus. I think part of the problem however is that there are few institutional structures that reward universalist or altruistic values. I’m not sure exactly what this institutional change would look like, but it’s worth exploring I think.

  2. Hi Joern, thanks for another interesting blog. The Common Cause values documents are really useful. I think however that you are massively over-simplifying the contents of the reports that you got the figure from though.

    As I understand it, the underlying research does not show that individuals align themselves to a particular set of values but rather than individuals carry a whole raft of values, including opposing values, and different values are activated to various degrees for different issues and in different contexts. (For example, many conservation biologists may express values for some issues that are fundamentally in the top right corner, but when faced with professional issues in their workplace gravitate rapidly to the bottom left corner, etc.).

    As I understand the CC reports, most people do value many of the universalist values at various times, to varying degrees. But they also value lots of other values. If individuals were all innately angelic, until we organise in groups, lots of social problems would have been solved long long ago. 🙂

    Thanks again and best wishes, Ian

    • Hi Ian, thanks for the feedback. Well, of course I simplified … but I’m not sure I agree with you that I “over-“simplified. The figure was used by the CC report to make their sets of arguments. I took the figure from their report because it is nicely formatted. The original figure is in the paper by Schwartz (1992), which I linked at the top. That paper talks much less about different sets of values being activated at different times; I took this to be the CC take on that work. (Or perhaps that was what was discovered later on.) So, I don’t think I over-simplified what CC was presenting — because I summarised what Schwartz presented, not what CC presented.

      On the second note — I think you’re right that we’re not inherently angelic. BUT … I also think there are a lot of people now who are very dissatisfied with the institutions that govern us. When I look around the place where I live, I see a lot of people living unsustainably. But I see a lot fewer people who I would describe as inherently driven by “power”, “wealth”, or even “achievement”. Instead, I would argue that many people now act within institutions that they are born into — but the institutions have essentially taken on a life of their own. Economic growth, for example, is not something we all want; what we want is happiness. Yet, the institutions we have created perpetuate growth at all costs. Many of us don’t want to buy clothes that involved child labour, but we do — because we don’t know about this, or we can’t afford other clothes.

      These kinds of situations, I believe (yes, this is a belief, or a hypothesis as I said above), are common.

      On the counter-argument (i.e. yours), that we would have resolved these things long ago if people were angelic. I think that argument misses the power of institutions within which we operate. It’s virtually impossible to live a sustainable lifestyle in Australia, for example, because of how society as a whole has organised itself. What I’m arguing for is that *IF* there is a mismatch between the values perpetuated by institutions and the values held by individuals, then we should examine that, talk about it — and *THEN* societal change might happen. As long as we are slaves to our institutions, it won’t happen.

      I see this largely as a slightly different take on the same thing — it may sound like we vehemently disagree, but I suspect we disagree only at the last few percent of analysis! One way or the other, I appreciate your feedback, and it’s certainly a worthwhile topic to be pondering!



      • Precisely so! This post, Joern, wonderfully summarizes the underlying thesis–and hope at the center of–my work. It is why I am such a big proponent of Ostrom’s fundamental work, and its potential. (Have you read Governing the Commons by the way? It is a worthy read and a rightful classic.)

        As often as people (correctly) point out that Ostrom’s results most rigorously apply to certain types of common property resource systems, her overall ideas and points go way beyond that. I feel like so much has been obscured or missed in much/some of the work built on hers. The first bits of GtC goes through game theory and institutionalist analyses, to make a couple and relatively simple arguments. At a similar risk of oversimplifying:
        (1) People’s behavior often maps on to the institutional structures–systematic rewards and punishments, to simplify–and identifying this is at least as important as “individual knowledge”, if not more so. So she goes through somewhat refined examples of Prisoner’s Dilemma games, and shows when it is profitable to “cooperate” or “defect.” In the simplified system, it is rather easy to determine the right balance of “rewards and punishments” it would take for people to “rationally choose” cooperation over defection. So if cooperating “pays off” X times more than defection, people are likely to cooperate even if it exposes them to some risk. *In other words* the institutions can determine what the “dominant strategy” is, and arguably, the majority of people will choose this strategy regardless of their “values” or “education.”
        (2) Of course, people (to greater and lesser degrees) set rules, rewards, and punishments. A group of people who depend on a resource therefore have a very strong incentive to “properly” set these so that the resource lasts indefinitely. Where multiple groups depend on resources for different uses, if there are lines of communication, it is still likely they will self-organize for mutual survival/benefit, even despite cultural differences.
        (3) To some extent, 1 & 2 must be true, or most resources would already have been over-exploited. While war, death in childbirth, disease, other sources of mortality, and out-migration have played a part in maintaining resources sufficient for humans to make it to today, we still could easily have overwhelmed countless resources if we had not variously developed methods to avoid this.
        (4) A key element in making this work is the ability to change the rules of institutions. While one can end up in infinite regress–“who gets to make the rules about who gets to make the rules?”–in practice, this is resolvable and obviously has been resolved in various places.

        I’m not doing it justice, but these are several key points I think that have nothing necessarily limiting them to common property resource management. Further, I see many parallels between her findings (and those of Bowles and Gintis; e.g. and various new/deep/deliberative democratic forms (

        I could go on and on, as you know, but what you wrote, and my reading of Ostrom, Bowles & Gintis, and others has long been exactly what you said: we “simply” need to change institutions. It is no easy task, but it is far easier than changing some inchoate yet innate “human nature.” Further, there is a long history–documented by Ostrom, Bowles and Gintis, and others–of humans coming up with institutions that combine some level of sustainability and social justice. None of them have been perfect. Many have been good to decent. Yet very few ecologists are looking to these systematically, nor advocating for them (in the sense of new forms like we discuss in our Deepening Democracy report). This is why I get so frustrated when people say, “Yes, but Ostrom really applies to a specific set of CPRs.” Well, in part–but only because her methods and assumptions have not been fully explored in other systems; not because no parallel results can be found.

        One last comment. Bowles and Gintis make the interesting point that it seems like around 50% of people across societies are “conditional/reciprocal cooperators” who, to oversimplify, behave freely altruistically when social institutions and past experience indicate a majority of others around them are doing the same; around 25% seem to behave altruistically more than is strictly “rational,” and 25% behave selfishly more than would be advantageously rational.

        While that is all very rough and tumble, it still consistently gives me hope that maybe around 75% of all people can be depended on to cooperate if the institutions are set up right. And the 25% can be dealt with by systems of sanctions and social norms–tilting the “game” so that the punishments for behaving “unsustainably/unjustly” outweigh the rewards.

        Not easy. But so much reason in the world to think it’s possible.

      • Hi Jahi, interesting. You know how some frameworks “speak” to you, and some just don’t? Somehow, I’ve never managed to personally connect very well with all-things-Ostrom — despite completely agreeing with the general direction her work was taking. I “read” governing the commons, but perhaps I should say I tried to; it did not connect very well with me. Perhaps I should try again! That aside, I also think it’s quite fine for there to be different, parallel origins of the same idea, notion or vibe. Will be nice to keep discussing this with you in the future; precisely because you agree but your angle is different! Cheers, J.

  3. This is very interesting and inspiring. My two cents: If it would hold that values such as “protect the environment” and “wealth”, “health”, “enjoying life” are opposites, then next to “re-educating” would be strategy to create a new storyline on how these two are actually connected strongly, and not opposites. In my understanding, a broadyly and progressively understood ecosystem service paradigm does try that.

  4. That makes sense, Joern. And you’re exactly right about the value of collaboration. I think approaching the same sets of things from multiple perspectives is also immensely useful.

    In terms of the original topic of your post, I wonder if there are any obvious parallels with this recent paper (haven’t read it yet) by a former colleague of mine at WSU, which found links between financial and non-financail values in conservation:

  5. Many thanks for sharing your very interesting thoughts on this issue. It was a pleasure to read it. Since the link between values and sustainability is an area of my research, I would like to add some sentences concerning your hypotheses:
    To H1: You suggest that a substantial proportion of the population holds universalist values. Since the World Values Survey data set includes a short 10-item Schwartz scale, we can check this. The respective statements are introduced as follows: “Now I will briefly describe some people. Using this card, would you please indicate for each description whether that person is very much like you, like you, somewhat like you, not like you, or not at all like you?” The response options are coded 5 to 1 from very much like me to not at all like me. The items read as follows (value concept in brackets behind the item):
    V80. [Self-Direction] It is important to this person to think up new ideas and be creative; to do things one’s own way.
    V81. [Power] It is important to this person to be rich; to have a lot of money and expensive things.
    V82. [Security] Living in secure surroundings is important to this person; to avoid anything that might be dangerous.
    V83. [Hedonism] It is important to this person to have a good time; to “spoil” oneself.
    V84. [Benevolence] It is important to this person to help the people nearby; to care for their well-being.
    V85. [Achievement] Being very successful is important to this person; to have people recognize one’s achievements.
    V86. [Stimulation] Adventure and taking risks are important to this person; to have an exciting life.
    V87. [Conformity] It is important to this person to always behave properly; to avoid doing anything people would say is wrong.
    V88. [Universalism] Looking after the environment is important to this person; to care for nature.
    V89. [Tradition] Tradition is important to this person; to follow the customs handed down by one’s religion or family

    Using the most recent WVS wave (2010-2014) for Germany (N=2,046 representative sample), we get the following means, showing that the altruistic value “benevolence”—perhaps we could say here the social dimension of sustainability—is highest.
    Self-direction 4.145
    Power 3.063
    Security 3.925
    Hedonism 3.940
    Benevolence 4.551
    Achievement 4.180
    Stimulation 2.606
    Conformity 3.766
    Universalism 4.074
    Tradition 3.930

    However, universalism values are in average slightly lower than the so-called self-enhancement value “achievement”. Only the second self-enhancement value “Power” is quite low. Thus, we can conclude that both self-enhancement values (achievement) and self-transcendence values are strong. The strong emphasis on achievement can be explained by the finding that Western (and Asian) societies are achievement cultures—I highly recommend the book ‘A World of Three Cultures: Honor, Achievement and Joy’ written by Miguel Basaaanez (published by Oxford University Press); the author works a lot with WVS data to show differences in value expressions.

    To H2 and H3: I agree that institutions should be re-aligined according to individual values. The question is, however, which values individuals really share. As my first WVS data presentation above shows, the picture is not uniform (and becomes more and more complex when we use regression techniques). Furthermore, selfish and individualistic people can also be sensitive for sustainability issues at the same time. In fact, the problem is that individualism is not only positively linked to wealth and achievement, but also to universalism, postmaterialism and environmental concern. A whole bunch of research shows that there is a positive and significant relationship between GDP p. C., which is higher in “achievement cultures”, and environmental concern and behavior [also at individual level] (e.g., Inglehart 1995, Franzen 2003, Gelissen 2007). Several authors emphasize that economic growth reduces the strength of interpersonal income comparisons, resulting in higher levels of tolerance and the desire for pro-social and pro-environmental legislation. Modernization theory literature suggests that a stronger emphasis on environmental protection results from higher levels of wealth, education, and health (typically, the argumentation is built on Maslow’s pyramid of human needs).
    What are the implications? That we need economic growth to be sensitive towards environmental and social problems? Do we need more distribution of wealth? Better education systems? But, would that diminish the emphasis on achievement among individuals in many societies? I do not think so. Would it be at all desirable to reduce individual’s sense to improve? With regard to the better living conditions, higher life expectancy, higher mass education, gender quality, and the great products developed by innovators, it is difficult to decide.
    Thus, we require institutions that can both satisfying the need for achievement on the one hand, and universalism and benevolence on the other. It is a tough challenge, but not impossible—let us be optimistic for the moment.

    • Thanks for engaging with this post, Steven! Given your actual expertise in this area (as opposed to my gut-based inkling on the topic), I’m glad you deemed the post worthy of engaging with. Your comments add really nice nuance to the discussion, thank you! One thing I’m wondering though: What trends are we seeing through time, and can the world values survey tell us this? For example, we have worked in Romania a lot, and sense a shift in community values towards achievement and materialistic values — very much at the expense of community spirit and also the environment. Is this kind of shift documented and/or testable? (One problem I see is that, as often, these things may be conducted at national scales, which masks massive within-country heterogeneity.)

      And finally, I think the point that people become more concerned about the environment as their economy grows is (to my mind) kind of a dead end. People’s environmental impact becomes larger, as becomes their awareness of environmental degradation, as the economy grows. But more growth does not lead to better sustainability outcomes (apart from perhaps from a well-being perspective, at lowish levels of GDP).

      I’m very far from being able to synthesise sensibly what I think of all this — but I do think it’s an area worth exploring further, and it seems to me that sustainability scientists have (perhaps) not tapped into this as much as they could.

      Anyway, I appreciate your input, which is additional food for thought!


      • Dear Joern, many thanks for your friendly response. Unfortunately, only waves 4 and 5 include Schwartz items. Since values change slowly, a comparison does not make much sense. Furthermore, WVS is cross-sectional. But I send you in the following some results for 77 countries, indicating that the emphasis on self-enhancement values has increased slightly, while universalism decreased. This could be an economic crisis effect.

        Wave 4
        Variable Mean Std. Dev. Min Max
        Power 3.02649 .6758736 1.985314 4.648985
        Security 4.579487 .4779199 3.351434 5.333333
        Hedonism 3.605212 .5621427 2.515131 5.076923
        Benevolence 4.719655 .3487397 3.585 5.327273
        Achievement 3.950134 .5418428 2.925573 5.258533
        Stimulation 3.129097 .5205922 2.161822 4.361995
        Conformity 4.438892 .4791997 3.254845 5.380052
        Universalism 4.569993 .3246859 3.805899 5.25617
        Tradition 4.487392 .5682091 2.780795 5.72122
        Selfdirect~n 4.304394 .3863841 3.39499 5.143984

        Wave 5
        Variable Mean Std. Dev. Min Max
        Power 3.23507 .7039475 2.068342 4.645253
        Security 4.615207 .449123 3.481262 5.553773
        Hedonism 3.833298 .6076366 2.309758 4.968839
        Benevolence 4.597933 .398124 3.575838 5.216763
        Achievement 4.084147 .5990044 2.55635 5.430057
        Stimulation 3.302615 .5407867 2.165834 4.519613
        Conformity 4.435133 .4533094 3.196485 5.307796
        Universalism 4.479995 .3965392 3.670335 5.501887
        Tradition 4.480139 .5824005 2.888587 5.724528
        Selfdirect~n 4.233368 .4154891 3.363803 5.295622

        There are two further WVS environmental concern items that have been used in several waves. It seems that environmental concern has decreased a bit over time. But, since countries are not always the same and individual characteristics are important, a more intensive look at the data would be necessary. Multi-level regression techniques can help here. Did you collect values data in Romania to document the value shift? It would be interesting to know how values change over time as consequence of higher levels of individual resources.

        “Increase in taxes if used to prevent environmental pollution.” (1=strongly agree to 4= Strongly disagree).

        Wave 1: S002 = 1989 – 1993
        Wave 2: S002 = 1994 1998
        Wave 3: S002 = 1999 2004
        Wave 4: S002 = 2005 2009

        Over Mean Std. Err. [95% Conf. Interval]
        Wave 1 2.188385 .006526 2.175594 2.201176
        Wave 2 2.281461 .0033297 2.274934 2.287987
        Wave 3 2.371113 .0047176 2.361867 2.38036
        Wave 4 2.428214 .0033425 2.421663 2.434765

        “Would give part of my income for the environment” (1=strongly agree to 4= Strongly disagree).

        Wave 1: S002 = 1989 1993
        Wave 2: S002 = 1999 2004
        Wave 3: S002 = 2005 2009

        Over Mean Std. Err. [95% Conf. Interval]
        Wave 1 1.980505 .0066524 1.967466 1.993544
        Wave 2 2.142176 .0045881 2.133183 2.151168
        Wave 3 2.273121 .0032901 2.266672 2.27957
        I agree that the growth paradigm is a problem. However, I also believe that only economic progress can improve individuals’ living (and working) conditions, gender equality, and out-group trust in less-developed countries. It is very unfortunate that especially the environment suffers enormously in consequence.

        Kind regards

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